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Walking Tall

Bill Coleman knows how to stretch the limits.
James Bludworth

Bill Coleman is a hardworking man. He's reliable and responsible, and he shows up on time. In fact, his previous employers have nothing but good things to say about him.

"He's definitely a people person," says Merilyn Lyons, special events coordinator for Conoco in Colorado.

"I would recommend him to any corporation or business," says Michael Moss, who organized last week's Circus Arts Festival in Steamboat Springs.

"He was very nice to work with, very pleasant," says Debbie MacDonald, the recreation center supervisor for the city of Longmont. "He was on time and ready to go."

With recommendations like those, Coleman figured he'd have a pretty good chance of landing a job or two at the July 9 Post-News Career Fair at the Pepsi Center. He arrived early and started handing out business cards, although he had to lean down pretty far to do it: Coleman was in costume and standing on stilts, a nine-foot-tall, red-white-and-blue Uncle Sam.

"There were several thousand people down there, and we were waiting for the doors to open about 10:30," he says. "Then a gal came out and said to me, 'What are you here for?' And I said, 'I'm here for the same reason everyone else is: to get a job.' And she says, 'The promoter doesn't want you here.' Then she said I'd be arrested if I didn't leave."

Coleman insists he has no idea why the promoter wanted him to go.

It couldn't have been the stilts, he says: "If I was applying for a carpentry job, I'd show up on the job site with my tools." That's why he wore the Uncle Sam suit, one of several outfits in his working wardrobe. "This was my first career fair, and I thought, 'Well, shoot, if I'm going to get a position in marketing or entertainment, I should play and act the part,'" he explains. "People want to know when they hire someone who is nine feet tall to do marketing or entertainment for them that he's going to look good, and by God, I look good."

Better than good, actually, says Lisa Herz-lich, marketing director for the Cherry Creek Shopping Center. "He looked great." Herzlich hired Coleman and two other stiltwalkers in December 1999 to dress up as toy soldiers and lead a group of Christmas carolers through the neighborhood. "He's done a wonderful job for us," she adds. "People really enjoyed him, especially the kids."

Herzlich didn't see Coleman when he dressed up as a candy cane last Christmas, but he looked great then, too. And as a clown in the Cinco de Mayo parade, as a jester for the grand opening of the Mardi Gras Casino in Black Hawk, as Father Time for the City of Fort Collins First Night celebration and as a cowboy at Boo at the Zoo last Halloween.

"He is zany and wacky, and the kids love him," says Courtney Stuecheli, special events and promotions coordinator for the Denver Zoo. "We'll probably hire him for next year's Boo at the Zoo."

Over the last few years, Stretch, as Coleman calls most of his characters, has worked summer picnics for the likes of JD Edwards and Janus Funds, festivals for cities up and down the Front Range, grand openings, parades, rallies and trade shows. He won the Colorado clown of the year award in 1998. Last year, he introduced a new act: giant puppets that he controls with hand stilts.

But Coleman didn't set out to be a stiltwalker. He picked up the sticks out of boredom, during lulls in the cleaning business he started with partner Jerry Williams in 1986 . "Every three or four years, frankly, I get restless," Coleman admits. "We started the window cleaning business, and after three or four years we added the mini-blind cleaning business. After that, about three or four years later, we added the acoustical ceiling tile cleaning business, but we dropped that, and a few years later I found these old parade stilts."

Stilts weren't entirely new to Coleman, however. In 1981, when he was living in Michigan, he spent the whole summer on them, sandblasting an eleven-story building. "One day I walked home on them. I just thought I'd try it out and see what it would be like," he remembers. After moving to Colorado a few years later, Coleman started wearing stilts as part of a Halloween costume. Then he figured it might be fun to wear them in a parade.

"I thought the easiest way to do that would be to join an organization that was already in the parade," he says. "Well, I had noticed the Colorado Clown Mobile parked in my neighbor's front yard a couple of times, and so I asked him about it, and he said, 'Sure, but you'll have to take this class.'"

The clowning class taught Coleman, now 48, all about clowning, makeup and the tricks of the trade. But it didn't prepare him for how strenuous it would be to stiltwalk in a parade (each stilt weights nine pounds). To get in shape, Coleman stiltwalked his way through a 5K charity run, then another, eventually working up to 10K runs. Last year, he stiltwalked the entire 26.2-mile Dublin Marathon. With his head in the trees, he got lost a number of times and was attacked by a group of kids who tried to pull his pants down, but he managed to finish the marathon in ten and a half hours -- faster than some of the runners.

"It takes practice, just like any other physical skill," says the six-foot (without stilts) Coleman. "I never learned to ice skate, but I learned to walk on stilts. I call the last five years my second childhood."

But he's gone about stiltwalking like an adult. He's spent about $15,000 over the years on his costumes, all of which are hand sewn by a seamstress who is now familiar with a sixty-inch inseam. He's been hired to work eight hours a day for several days in a row. He makes about $250 to $300 for a two-hour show (although he sometimes barters; the zoo paid him partially in tickets, for instance). He's signed with a number of talent agencies, advertises himself on an extensive Web site (stiltwalker.com), cold-calls businesses, organizations and government agencies, and hands out business cards at every event he works.

And that was the problem at the Pepsi Center, according to Jill Behr, the Post-News career-fair manager. "Apparently he was passing out literature and had started making comments to our applicants, and they didn't want to talk to him," she says. "We thought he was rather festive, as long as he didn't interfere with what we were trying to accomplish. But it's one thing to sell yourself to an exhibitor and another to sell yourself to the applicants."

Brian Kitts, public-relations manager for the Pepsi Center, says everyone there knows who Coleman is: The Colorado Avalanche hired him to entertain the fans outside of the arena during the Stanley Cup finals earlier this year. But it was one thing to entertain the fans there and another to introduce himself to potential clients. "As I understand it," Kitts says, "he was basically soliciting business and we just don't allow that. The Pepsi Center is a private facility and is private property."

"It's the nail that sticks up that gets hammered down," Coleman says.

But he'll soon rise again. Lyons, who hired Coleman to work several Conoco station grand openings, is among many former employers who plan to call him the next time they need the type of entertainment he provides. "I don't care what outfit he's in," she says. "Whether he's using the giant puppets or he's a nine-foot stiltwalker, everyone seems to enjoy him. He's funny and good with a crowd. He's a great draw."


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